What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say

overcoming adversity

Many times when you are faced with a statement from another person sharing an experience through adversity, there is some confusion about how to comfort and acknowledge their pain. We were never taught how to interact and comfort people facing a life-threatening illness. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving and vulnerable. When someone begins to share their raw emotions, it can be uncomfortable. Sometimes we don’t know what to say, so we default to a subject that we are comfortable with: Ourselves.

Sociologist Charles Derber describes this tendency to insert oneself into a conversation as “conversational narcissism.” Derber writes in his book “The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life” that conversational narcissism “is the key manifestation of the dominant attention-getting psychology in America. It occurs in informal conversations among friends, family, and co-workers. The profusion of popular literature about listening and the etiquette of managing those who talk constantly about themselves suggests its pervasiveness in everyday life.”

I’d love to offer some help on what to say in these situations. Instead of providing a list of what NOT to say, I’m going to offer some alternatives to some statements you normally would make to a cancer patient in hopes of comforting and supporting them.

Please don’t compare the cancer I have to other kinds of cancer.

In my experience, I got a lot of comments that I have the “good cancer.” I’ve written columns and made videos about how frustrating and offensive this is.

Instead of trying to make me feel better for having a type of cancer with a better outcome than most, you must remember that it is still CANCER.

What to say instead: “Tell me about the type of cancer you have, if you’d like. I’d like to know more about what you’re going through.”

Please don’t say, “Hair is just hair. It will grow back. The hairdresser cut my hair really short one time, I know how you feel.”

Of course we know that it will grow back, but our image is being taken away from us with no control, and that’s hard emotionally and physically.

What to say instead: “I couldn’t imagine what you must be feeling. If you ever want to go try on fun wigs and go out as an alter ego, I’m your person!”

Please don’t tell me about your friend’s cousin’s friend who healed their cancer naturally.

Choosing and accepting whatever treatment plan to receive is one of the hardest parts of getting cancer. How I heal and what drugs I end up taking will have a very large impact on the rest of my life. Choosing to receive chemo was not an easy decision.

What to say instead: “I can only imagine how bad these drugs make you feel. I’m here for you if you ever need a ride to treatment. Tell me more about why you made the decision to go this route.”

I could provide endless examples of what exactly cancer patients, or anyone going through an adversity, want to hear, but my best advice is to try to notice when you respond to someone’s cry with an inward response. Instead of redirecting the conversation back to yourself or how their situation makes you feel, try to empathize, not just sympathize. All we really want is for you to hear us and acknowledge what we are going through.


Note: Lymphoma News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lymphoma News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lymphoma.

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